The calendar date changes from one day to the next when the clock strikes midnight—a mundane event that occurs 364 times without much fanfare as we move through the year. But across much of the world, people have decided that the transition from December 31 to January 1 is different. It marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next—a cause for celebration. When the clock strikes midnight on Sunday, December 31, 2017, millions of people around the world will mark the transition to the first day of 2018 with ringing of bells, sounding of sirens, and launching of fireworks, as they drink a toast and shout, “Happy New Year!” (To make or drink a toast, or to drink to the health or prosperity of a person or thing, is to take a drink and wish good fortune to others or for the success of an event.) People may also take a moment to reflect, look back at the events of the past year, and make resolutions to do better in the months ahead.
Why is January 1 cause for such celebration? A year is the time Earth takes to make one complete revolution around the sun. But Earth’s journey around the sun is essentially circular and has no beginning or end. What is the history behind the New Year’s celebrations?
How did ancient people know a new year was beginning? For many people in ancient times—before time was measured with such devices as calendars and clocks—a new year was usually marked by the annual harvest. In some societies, this tradition continues today. For example, the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Ha-Shanah, is observed during September or early October, which is the harvest period in the Northern Hemisphere. People in ancient times performed rituals at the time of the new year to do away with the past and purify themselves for the coming year. For example, some people extinguished the fire burning in the hearth at home and started a new one.
The death of winter and the birth of spring. People in other ancient societies observed that the days were getting longer again after the winter solstice (around the beginning of what we now call January and on or close to the day of least sunlight). They recognized this as the death of winter and the beginning of a new spring. The ancient Persians gave New Year’s gifts of eggs, which symbolized birth and renewal.
How January got its name. The ancient Romans were responsible for many of the new year traditions in the Western world. January—the first month of the year in the Roman calendar—was named after Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. Janus had two faces—one looking forward and the other looking backward. In early times, the ancient Romans gave each other New Year’s gifts of branches from sacred trees or gold-covered nuts or coins imprinted with pictures of Janus.
New Year’s in the Middle Ages. Many of the ancient traditions were later discouraged. During the Middle Ages, from about the A.D. 400’s through the 1400’s, as Christianity spread through Europe, most countries began using March 25, a Christian holiday called Annunciation Day, to start the year. The Annunciation is the announcement, according to Luke 1: 26-38, in the Bible, that the angel Gabriel made to Mary. Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus.
How the Celts revived New Year’s. The Celts had adopted many New Year’s customs from the Romans, who invaded Britain in A.D. 43. Celtic priests in what is now England gave the people branches of mistletoe, which the Celts considered sacred. These traditions persisted into the Christian era. By the 1200’s, English rulers had revived an old Roman custom of rulers asking their subjects for New Year’s presents. Groups of actors, called mummers, were especially widespread during the 1500’s and 1600’s. They performed traditional plays during the Christmas and New Year season. Scholars believe that the plays developed from ancient Celtic rituals connected with the birth of spring and the death of winter. The annual new year Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, continues this tradition today.
Party like it’s 1599! By 1600, many European nations had adopted a revised calendar called the Gregorian calendar. This calendar, the one most people use today, restored January 1 as New Year’s Day. Great Britain and its colonies in America adopted the calendar in 1752. Gift giving remained an important aspect of recognizing the new year. English husbands gave their wives money on New Year’s Day to buy pins and other articles. This custom disappeared in the 1800’s. However, the term pin money still means small amounts of spending money.
Celebrate like a colonist. Many of the more boisterous New Year’s traditions seem to have originated in the Americas. American colonists in New England celebrated the new year by firing guns into the air. They also visited taverns for drinks, where many toasts were likely made. Some people held open house, welcoming all visitors for a joyous celebration.
New Year’s today. Today in the United States many people go to New Year’s Eve parties. Crowds gather in London’s Trafalgar Square; or around Sydney Harbour in Australia; St. Petersburg’s Dvortsovaya Square; the Shibuya district in Tokyo; or Times Square in New York City and in other public places to count down the seconds until midnight. Many other cities throughout the West have adopted these modern celebrations.
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